ANEW SERIES debuted last week in Town & County titled "Lost Fredericksburg." This series will focus on lost architecture and historically important structures in the city of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, Stafford and other nearby counties.
This article is not quite suitable for the series. Although it was almost completely destroyed by an arsonist's hand just a year ago this month, Idlewild still remains, although tenuously. The local city government will take title any day and perhaps, at that time, fate will smile on this long-embattled structure.
In the early dawn hours of April 14, 2003, an alarm was called in by a northbound motorist on Interstate 95 for what was presumed to be a brush fire. Upon arrival at the fire scene, off State Route 3 just east of Interstate 95 near Home Depot, local fire units found their worst nightmare: the glorious Idlewild mansion, a gem of the Fredericksburg area and a very important element of the local Civil War arena, was engulfed in flames. For most of the morning, firefighters bravely and continuously struggled to bring the inferno under control. At the end, the poignantly beautiful brick walls remained, mute testimony to the fight that had once again ensued within its boundaries.
After the barrage of cannon and bullets in May 1863, Idlewild remained standing, although in need of dire repair. Idlewild stood for the next 140 years, serving as the family home of its original builders until the last son died in his 90s in the late 1940s. In 1950, the house was sold out of the family and served as a family estate for its second owners until the property was recently sold. However, after the death of its last owners, Idlewild sat for quite some time alone and abandoned on its beautiful hilltop, falling victim to both nature and the relentless attacks of vandals.
Just a year or so before the devastating fire, vandals broke into Idlewild and proceeded to smash its mahogany banisters, all of its windows, and to pull down a large side portion of its porch by attaching a chain to a motorized vehicle. It was an act of such violence and hatred that preservationists in the area were dumbfounded.
Still, the struggle continued to save this treasured site. Boards were pulled down from doors and windows and were nailed up again by those who patrolled its grounds (in vain) to try to protect the house from further damage. This routine continued until the fateful morning when, for all intents and purposes, the vandals appeared to have won.
Too late to be of much help, a tall chain-link fence was erected around the ruins and the three remaining dependencies. This provided a brief respite for the embattled site, but soon the fencing was pulled up and crawled under and, later, cut. Still, the vandalism continued. Still, the preservationists repaired the damages.
On a brighter note, Idlewild recently served as an important participant in educating visitors and schoolchildren by serving as a set for the upcoming film about the life of the citizens of Fredericksburg during the War Between the States. The dependencies were very believable as downtown Fredericksburg structures. The summer kitchen was most effective, serving as a schoolhouse on its northern side and a store on its southern side. The site looked quite impressive with its props of white picket fences and signs of the era.
Once again, Idlewild heard the roar of the cannons and the sounds of large crowds of people rushing through its grounds. The mansion also has a role in the newly released film "Chancellorsville," as the fire-destroyed Chancellorsville house.
Those who visit the site are, almost to the person, struck by the majesty of this wonderful old home. Even today, Idlewild has a sense of presence that can take your breath away. The brick walls that have withstood every attack upon them show the signs of repair that were necessary after they were virtually destroyed by the hellish cannon fire that struck within five years of their original construction. The ruins show ghost lines where stairs and walls once stood. Standing at the site can be compared to experiencing other historically important structures that are hanging on despite all odds, such as Menokin, Beverly Mills and Barboursville among others.
Idlewild's future will soon be decided. Whether it will be kept as ruins as part of a city park, rebuilt and used as an office building, or painstakingly re-stored and opened for visitors to experience the process of its restoration--much like Poplar Forest in Bedford--remains to be seen. But Idlewild is a resource and treasure that cannot be ignored. It will always remain a very important part of both Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County and Civil War history throughout the ages.
DONNA CHASEN is a member of the board of directors of the Spotsylvania Preservation Foundation and a founding member of the Fredericksburg Regional Preservation Trust, motivated advocate for Idlewild. She welcomes any comments or questions about the house and can be reached at email@example.com.